The Forever Engine – Snippet 39


“So, you will not go from here by land? A pity. I know a man who has mules for sale. Very good price.”

There was enough regret in Cevik’s expression that I suspected he would have gotten a piece of the “very good price.”

“Ask him if we can get enough boats to move all his troops upriver,” Gordon ordered.

“No, not on such short notice,” he answered after I translated the question. “I doubt we can find enough to move over fifty men by tomorrow, and that may cost you a pretty penny. You have silver?”

The fact that Cevik Bey had, in an offhanded and conversational tone, let me know the Turks would not be underwriting the expedition was not lost on me. As to money, Gordon had over five hundred pounds’ worth of British, Turkish, German, and Serbian currency in his “war chest,” but there was no point in advertising the fact.

“We have silver, Cevik Bey, although our pockets are not bottomless.”

“Ah, whose are?” he asked with a shrug.

“Ask him if he will support the mission as he was ordered to,” Gordon said.

I did, but with a bit more diplomacy.

“Yes, of course we will help. These Serbs, they make nothing but trouble. They deserve to be punished, and will be. But my orders are we cannot cross in force without provocation. You understand?”

I translated for Gordon and then translated his reply back, but without the insult and profanity.

“The threat posed by the Old Man of the Mountain is as great to Turkey as it is to Britain,” I said. “Surely the Sublime Porte intends more vigorous Turkish action.”

“Ah, but the Sublime Porte also knows that the world judges the vigor of Turkish actions differently than it does those of others,” Cevik Bey answered. “Less than two years ago the Bulgarians raided across the Danube on a regular basis, intent on provoking war. The world paid little attention to the vigor of their actions. But when Turkey responded with force, the world noticed. Great Britain itself noticed, and joined the world in condemning the vigor of Turkey’s response. ‘Outrage’ was the word the British prime minister used, I believe, and the British newspapers used stronger words, ugly words.

“So now Britain remembers its friend Turkey. This makes us happy. It makes me happy, Mr. Fargo. I have always admired the British.”

To prove the point he flashed Gordon an enormous smile. Not knowing the gist of the exchange, Gordon returned the smile, if with less enthusiasm.

“However, our other neighbors are not so friendly as Britain,” Cevik Bey continued. “When you are gone, we will still live next to them. So it must be clear to the world that Serbia is the more . . . vigorous participant in this incident, and that Turkey acts only in response to their crimes.”

“How do you plan to arrange that?” I asked.

Cevik Bey took another sip of champagne and considered his answer.

“I have a battalion of Bosnian riflemen and two mountain guns. I will march them overland to Uvats and wait there. We will cross the border when and if it is necessary to prevent harm to you, our friends.”

“How will you know when we are in difficulty?”

“Signal rockets,” he answered, and waved his hand as if in imitation of a rocket spiraling up into the sky. “We will send a dozen with you. Send them up if you need help.”

“And how will we stay alive while we’re waiting for you to march a battalion and drag two guns up those mountain valleys?”

“Ah, I send soldiers with you as well, just not so many as to be a provocation, you see? I sent a platoon of good riflemen ahead to Uvats under a sergeant I trust very much. Also, he speaks English. He was American once, but converted to Islam. He is . . . scouting into Serbia, actually. But I sent no Turkish officer, so no provocation. You see?”

Not entirely, but it sounded as if the patrol he had out, if it was lost, was expendable. We probably were as well, in his mind. I translated for Gordon to give myself time to think it over.

“It’s important you not react with surprise or anger to this,” I said to Gordon as a preface. His frown grew deeper, eyes darker.

“Just tell me what the bloody Wog said.”

Out of the corner of my eye I saw Cevik stiffen. He may not have spoken English, but he knew the word “wog.”

“Look at me, not him when I tell you this. He understands the word you just used. Are you trying to blow this mission up?” I asked calmly, as if discussing the weather. “Are you trying to get the Turks so pissed off they’ll send us away and you won’t have to go through with it? Because that’s how it looks to me, and it’s probably how it will look to General Buller as well.”

He didn’t say anything in reply, but his face began getting red — whether with anger or shame I couldn’t say. Probably both — they usually keep company.

“Cevik Bey will back us up with a battalion once we’re in trouble,” I said. “But for now we get just a rifle platoon he sent to scout ahead into Serbia.”

Gordon sat quietly for a moment, lips compressed in a hard thin line.

“One platoon?” he said finally.

“Here’s a better question: all the local officers along the border were alerted and told to cooperate. How did he know we’d come here and send someone ahead?”

His anger disappeared, replaced by confusion and then curiosity.

“A spy?” he asked.

“Maybe, but I don’t think so. Too complicated, too many spies. Maybe he was just being proactive, but I bet he already had his guys out there and is using our appearance as an excuse. We’re his fig leaf for maybe going over the line in poking the Serbs.”

He thought about it for a moment and then nodded.

“Very well. Tell him we appreciate his help and foresight.”

Not bad. I passed the sentiment along, and Cevik Bey smiled again.

“Will you cable ahead to Uvats and have your men waiting?” I asked.

“Unfortunately, the telegraph to the frontier is out of service. It happens fairly often. I have written a dispatch to the commander of the Jandarma in Uvats and another to Sergeant Durson, when you find him.” He held up the two sealed letters. “Sergeant Durson reads, by the way. Quite admirable for a sergeant. He may not be in Uvats but he was to keep the Uvats Jandarma informed of his activity. Finding him should not be a problem.”

I translated for Gordon, who took the news without visible reaction aside from a small nod. He was getting better at this.

“You understand,” I said to Cevik Bey, “that even with this platoon of riflemen, who I am sure are among your very best, our party may suffer casualties before you can come to our assistance?”

His face became serious, with a trace of sadness in his eyes. “Ah, let us hope not. If so, it would cause me great distress.”

“Because of how much you admire the British,” I offered.

He smiled, bowed his head slightly, and spread his hands. “We understand each other perfectly. But let us pray it does not come to that. Ibrahim Durson is an excellent sergeant. His men are always under control, and he follows orders exactly. He also never makes annoying suggestions. It is bad for a sergeant to have ideas of his own. Does Captain Gordon not agree with this?”

“He says he likes it when sergeants know their place and keep their opinions to themselves,” I translated for Gordon.

“I don’t know about sergeants, but I certainly agree with respect to translators.”